Anna-Wili Highfield has become a great success story of the Australian art scene even though she has chosen to work as an unrepresented artist. Since 2008 she has been creating sculptures from paper and copper, selling them on a commission basis through her website. After working as a scenic artist at Opera Australia, Anna-Wili has never been out of work, and often there is a long wait-list for her pieces. Part of the demand stems from large-scale commissions from high-profile commercial clients, including Hermes, a collaboration that has been going for five years. Most recently Anna-Wili was invited to exhibit at Carriageworks for Semi Permanent and spoke to an audience of 1000 people.
The original interview with Anna-Wili Highfield was published on 14 April 2010.
Anna-Wili Highfield combines many artistic mediums into her sculpture creations. While some are made from copper piping, the ones she is most known for are handmade from paper that is torn and sewn to create animal-inspired works. There's a nod to her childhood, growing up as the daughter of a puppeteer, and her first job as a scenic artist for Opera Australia, where she worked after studying Fine Art at the National Art School in Sydney. From her studio in St Peters, Anna-Wili works on a commission basis, eschewing the gallery system. It has served her well, and her works are sold into private collections all over the world.
What was your first job and what path have you taken since? Scenic painting for Opera Australia. I learnt so much about the alchemy of painting materials, how to achieve the effects of nature through the process of layers and reactions between paints. I think the time I spent at Opera Australia has really influenced my practice. I now make sculptures from paper that I stain and tear, then sew to create the figure of an animal. The opera influenced my love of materials and the desire to create an impression of the natural world.
What's the best lesson you've learnt along the way? To spend more time making then thinking. I don't like to try to plan a piece. My work evolves most effectively when I just start. I spent the whole of art school paralysed by too much consideration. I am now very prolific.
What's your proudest career achievement? The momentum that I am enjoying. Also that my animals have travelled to the homes of people in London, Paris, New York, Toronto and Melbourne!
What's the best decision you've made? To have a website created so that I enjoyed the encouragement of people seeking my work out and the fun of going it alone without worry of acceptance and critique (and heavy gallery commissions). I love to meet the people I am making the sculptures for, to know who they are and where my sculptures are going. I find this very fulfilling.
Who inspires you? The artists that inspire me are usually representational artists who allow the spaces between things. I love a piece of art that represents a little and then allows your mind to fill in some more. Artists like Luc Tuymans, Gerghardt Richter, Anselm Keifer, August Rodin, I just saw some William Kentridge animated drawings this afternoon, they were heavy and sad but so beautifully constructed and erased. Also my husband Simon Cavanough for his art and who he is. He is also the most helpful critic of my work. Also the music of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
What are you passionate about? Making beautiful things.
Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? Since I was 16 the person I most wanted to meet was Nick Cave. But I don't think I ever really wanted to. I was standing two feet away at a music festival recently. I saw him and felt like my bones were out of my body. It wasn't fun.
What dream do you still want to fulfill? Simply to be able to keep on steadily making my art.
What are you reading? The Great Gatsby because I'm in New York.
images courtesy of anna-wili highfield; photography silversalt (1, 3), petrina tinslay (2, 4) and shauna greyerbiehl